The ‘Dunlavin tragedy’: murder, suicide and the execution of William Mitchell in 1921
In 1920, due to a shortage of Royal Irish Constabulary recruits in Ireland at the height of the War of Independence, the British authorities began to recruit new members in Britain. These ‘Black and Tans’ carried out many atrocities during the war, including multiple killings of civilians throughout Ireland, but only one of them, Constable William Mitchell, was ever executed for murder. This crime occurred at Milltown, Dunlavin, on 2 February 1921.
The story of the murder, the subsequent suicide of Mitchell’s co-accused, Constable Arthur Hardie, and the consequent court martial and execution of Mitchell, transfixed people throughout Ireland.[i] The murder victim, Robert Dixon, was described in contemporary records as an ‘auctioneer’, but locally he was known as a ‘cattle dealer’ who had attended cattle sales the previous day and had cash in the house on the night he was murdered. Dixon was a justice of the peace, and a leading figure in both Church of Ireland and wealthy landholding circles.[ii] His politico-religious and socio-economic status may well explain Mitchell’s unique fate.[iii]
In local lore, Mitchell is remembered as a Black and Tan, but contemporary records describe him as an RIC constable. However, Black and Tans were recruited as temporary constables, and so this apparent anomaly can be explained away. Conflicting reports also exist regarding Mitchell’s nationality. Contemporary press reports state that he was English, but the historical record shows that he was Irish,[iv] had emigrated to England, fought in World War One and returned to Ireland as a Black and Tan.[v] Perhaps there was a reluctance in the Irish print media to claim a Black and Tan charged with murder as ‘one of our own’.
On Monday 18 April 1921, at a court martial in the City Hall in Dublin, William Mitchell pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charge that he did ‘at Milltown, Dunlavin, County Wicklow, on 2 February, murder Robert T. Dixon J.P’.[vi] Mitchell was defended by counsel, and so the case of the Milltown murder began.
The prosecution opened the case by laying out the known facts: Robert Dixon was a farmer, an auctioneer and a magistrate for the district, and there was no known reason why his home should be targeted, or he murdered on that night. At about 12.30 a.m., a loud knocking was heard at the door of Milltown House, Dixon’s home. James Dixon, the son of the murdered man, came downstairs, and despite no lights being on, he could see two figures outside through the glass panel in the door. When he asked who was there, they answered ‘We are military; open the door at once’, and demanded that the door be opened. James asked them to wait until he got dressed. He went upstairs, alerted his father and returned to the door armed with a poker from the fireside. However, when he opened the door the two masked men burst in, brandishing revolvers and a flashlight and demanded money. Robert Dixon was now in the hall and he took money from his trousers pockets. The intruders fired a shot in the hall and threatened the householders. At this point, Dixon senior went upstairs, but one of the men followed him. The prosecution contended that this was Constable Hardie, and that, while on the stairs, he fired the shot that would kill Dixon. Meanwhile, James had been wounded twice and was lying on the downstairs floor. At this point, the two ladies in the house attacked the intruders with sticks, causing them to run away. One of the women then cycled to Dunlavin to notify the authorities and fetch a doctor. When Dixon’s house was searched, two hats belonging to Constables Hardie and Mitchell were found. A flashlamp from Dunlavin RIC barracks was also found, as well as spent bullets from service revolvers.
On parade the next day, Mitchell’s revolver was found to have been recently fired and Hardie’s revolver was found to be bloodstained. Head Constable Daniel Hussey stated that twenty rounds of ammunition were also missing. The clothing of the accused and of Hardie were found to be bloodstained. The prosecution argued that, even if Mitchell had not fired the fatal shot, he accompanied Hardie and was equally guilty in the eyes of the law.
Evidence of the family
In his testimony, James Dixon confirmed the prosecuting counsel’s opening statement, adding that once inside the house the men had called for a light, and that Robert Dixon, went upstairs to fetch one. One intruder followed his father upstairs and the second man remained in the hall. The first intruder came down the stairs and the witness grappled with the second intruder:
With my right hand I grabbed the revolver and pushed it behind his back. The man who was struggling with me shouted at his comrade not to shoot. I managed to wrest one revolver away and stepped back, but the man who had come down the stairs fired and struck me in the left shoulder. I also fired, but my gun did not go off. The man fired again and shot me in the hip. I fell and heard more shooting, but got up again and went for one of the men. I fell a second time and one of the men rushed over to me and hit me on the head with the butt of his revolver.
The witness also said that the second man had a moustache and wore grey clothes.
The victim’s daughter, Kathleen May Dixon, then gave evidence. She confirmed her brother’s account. She said she got her father onto the sofa and her brother sitting in a chair, before getting dressed and cycling to Dunlavin for the doctor. As she was dressing, she saw the two men outside the window. One man called the other ‘Bill’. When the witness returned with the doctor, she found the flashlamp on the table and two hats on the floor.
The dead man’s sister, Martha Jane Dixon, then told the court that after the shooting, she hit one of the intruders on the head several times with a stick and that blood was pouring down his face. She stated that on the following day, a district inspector showed her the corpse of a dead constable in Dunlavin. The prosecuting counsel asked if she had identified the body, and she answered ‘Yes, he was one of the men in my brother’s house the previous night’.
Medical and police evidence
The court then heard medical evidence, involving technical information about Robert Dixon’s wounds. The doctor remained with him, but he died after about an hour. Dixon’s son had wounds in the left shoulder and about the hips. He was operated on, and was in a very critical condition.
The police evidence was heard next. District Inspector Laurence Delaney deposed that the police reached Milltown at about 5.30 a.m., but Robert Dixon was already dead. His son was in an upstairs room. Bullet marks were found on the walls of the hall, and a sergeant found a standard RIC issue flashlamp from Dunlavin barracks. The police returned to Dunlavin at about 9 a.m. The constables in the station were instructed to parade and produce their revolvers and ammunition. Scotsman Constable Arthur Hardie was found to have a fresh cut on his forehead and another cut on the top of his head.[vii] Hardie’s revolver was bloodstained, and he could not produce his hat. Mitchell was found in possession of a ‘fouled’ revolver. Twenty rounds of ammunition were also missing from the barracks strong room, near the day room. The police witness went on to relate how both constables were relieved of their arms, ammunition and accoutrements and placed under police supervision. While under supervision in Dunlavin barracks, Hardie committed suicide with the service revolver of his room-mate, Constable Thomas Alston.[viii] Constable Mitchell was then arrested and charged with murder.
The Dunlavin barrack orderly on the night of 1 February, Constable Thomas Cuddy, testified that the accused told him he was leaving the barracks after the ten o’clock roll call. Later on, the accused came into the dayroom and said that he was going to the strong room. Mitchell spent about a half a minute in the strong room, where the ammunition was kept. Hardie also went into the strong room a little later on. At about 11.30 p.m., the witness saw three constables, including Hardie and Mitchell, in their room drinking stout. At about midnight Hardie asked the witness for the flashlight, as he wanted to go to the rear of the barracks. The witness identified the torch in court. Later on, the witness heard an iron door, such as the one on Mitchell’s room, being opened. He went to investigate and found the room empty, but later, sometime after 1 a.m., he heard voices coming from the room. The witness identified the hats recovered from the crime scene in court as the property of Mitchell and Hardie.
Cuddy told the court that Constable Hardie was later missing from parade. During a search of the barracks, Hardie’s was found dead in his room. A recently fired revolver was lying on the bed and there was blood flowing from Hardie’s chest. Another constable testified that the shed at the rear of the barracks had been locked at 5.30 p.m. on 1 February. There were three bicycles there and the key was hanging in the kitchen. At 9 a.m. the following morning the police witness found the shed door open and noted bicycle tracks in the yard.
Mitchell’s statement and character witness
A statement taken from Mitchell on 7 March was then read to the court. He stated that he had been drinking in the morning, and he had returned to the public house in the afternoon. He continued drinking that evening and ended up in the Railway Hotel, beside Dunlavin barracks. He couldn’t remember being on roll call that night, but remembered talking to some other constables in the barracks. He couldn’t remember leaving the kitchen at all. The next thing that he remembered was being woken up early on the morning of 2 February by someone shouting. Everyone was confused and he had been told that someone had been shot. He went back to bed until about 8 a.m. The constables were later asked to parade in the dayroom with their guns, ammunition and civilian suits. The inspector kept his property. He did not know that he was under supervision, but he was arrested the following day. Mitchell stated that he had fought in France for three years during the Great War. He had been blown up on the Somme in 1916 and had been wounded again in 1918, before being pensioned off. Since the war, drink affected him badly, causing him to suffer with his nerves and making him suggestible and easily influenced. He was thirty-three years old and was married. His wife was expecting a child. He had been among the first to volunteer to join the RIC. He ended his statement by saying that he had joined with good intentions, to prevent this sort of thing and not to provoke it. The defence and prosecution counsels both addressed the court and the judge advocate summed up before the court formally closed.
When the court re-opened, District Inspector Laurence Delaney acted as a police character witness and testified that Mitchell had joined the RIC in November 1920 and was transferred to Dunlavin on 1 January 1921. He was a clean and apparently sober man and no complaints had been brought against him. He discharged his police duties efficiently and well. The counsel for the defence produced evidence that Mitchell had spent four years in the army and according to his commanding officer he was smart, intelligent, steady and a hard worker. The president asked Mitchell if he wished to address the court, but he did not. The court closed and the charge of murder was considered.
The sequel to the trial of William Mitchell was short-lived. He was found guilty of the murder of Robert Dixon and of the attempted murder of his son, James. He was removed to Mountjoy Gaol and there, on the morning of 7 June 1921, he was hanged by the neck until dead in accordance with the sentence of the court martial. On the same day in Mountjoy, IRA volunteers Edmond Foley of Galbally, County Limerick, and Paddy Maher of Knocklong, County Limerick, were also hanged for their part in the rescue of Sean Hogan at Knocklong Railway Station on 13 May 1919.[ix] According to press reports, William Mitchell walked steadily and firmly from his cell and met his death bravely. His remains still lie within the walls of Mountjoy.
[i] In addition to many detailed reports in the local press, the case of ‘the Dunlavin tragedy’ was also widely reported in the national press. For example, Mitchell’s arrest was reported in the Irish Independent, 5 Feb 1921. The court martial was the lead story in the Evening Herald, 18 Apr 1921 and featured in the Irish Independent on both 19 and 20 Apr 1921. Mitchell’s sentence was included in the Freeman’s Journal, 31 May 1921. Mitchell’s execution was detailed in the Irish Independent, 8 June 1921 under the by-line ‘How he met his death’. The murder and arrest featured in many press reports in February and the court martial and sentence were headline news in April and May, while the execution was widely reported in June.
[ii] Chris Lawlor, Canon Frederick Donovan’s Dunlavin 1884-1896: A west Wicklow village in the late nineteenth century (Dublin, 2000), 39. See also, Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 30 November 1894.
[iii] Chris Lawlor, The little book of Wicklow (Dublin, 2014), 90.
[iv] D. J. Kelly, ‘A Black and Tan executed’, in Journal of the West Wicklow Historical Society, viii (Naas, 2015), 95.
[v] D. J. Kelly, Running with crows: the life and death of a Black and Tan (United Kingdom, 2013), 199–200.
[vi] The Nationalist and Leinster Times, 23 Apr 1921. All the following information about the murder, suicide, arrest, court-martial, verdict, sentence and execution are constructed from this and other local press reports from The Nationalist and Leinster Times, 5 Feb, 12 Feb, 26 Feb, 12 Mar and 4 Jun 1921, The Leinster Leader,12 Feb, 19 Feb, 9 Apr, 23 Apr, 4 Jun and 11 Jun 1921, and The Wicklow People, 5 Feb 1921 (as well as the national newspapers from the period February to June 1921, see endnote 1), unless otherwise stated. In addition, some information taken from National Archive Kew, War Office Papers, Death of Robert Gilbert Dixon, 2nd February, 1921, Milltown, Dunlavin, County Wicklow (WO 35/149B/1); Death of Constable Arthur Hardie, RIC; 31st February (sic), 1921, Dunlavin, County Wicklow (WO 35/151B/11) and Death of Constable William Mitchell, RIC, 7th June, 1921, HM Prison Mountjoy, Dublin (WO 35/155B/14) has been included.
[vii] Hardie was born in Stirling on 23 Mar 1897. Jim Herlihy, The Royal Irish Constabulary: a short history and genealogical guide with a select list of medal awards and casualties (Dublin, revised ed., 2016), 235.
[viii] An order was given that Hardie was not to have access to firearms. Undated note from D.A.A.G (Deputy Assistant Adjutant General) relating to Hardie’s suicide, TNA, War Office Papers, WO 35/151B/11. Alston left his revolver on his bed when the room was empty, but Hardie later entered the room and shot himself with the weapon. Evidence of Constable Thomas Alston taken at Dunlavin, 4 Feb 1921, TNA, WO 35/151B/11. It is possible that Alston provided Hardie with the gun so that he could ‘do the decent thing’ and take the ‘honourable’ way out. However, without corroborating evidence, this possibility is merely speculation.
[ix] http://webpages.dcu.ie/~foxs/irhist/june_1921.htm (visited on 20 January 2006). Ed Foley had taken part in the rescue but Paddy Maher had not. For an excellent account of and insight into the miscarriage of justice against Maher, see David Dineen, ‘Paddy Maher: a judicial murder’ in University of Limerick, History Studies, vol. 16 (2015), 31-41.